Of all the messes President-elect Joe Biden is tasked with cleaning up, the climate crisis is the most high stakes. If aggressive decarbonization doesn’t begin soon, climate scientists see little chance of preventing permanent ecological catastrophe.
We have to care about our future more than we care about defending Kerry's honor.
Biden will need the most qualified team on Earth to prevent the health and economic consequences that would follow. And on Nov. 17, he announced one of the most important members of that team: Former Secretary of State John Kerry.
Kerry is filling a new cabinet-level role to lead international climate efforts; one which the New York Times says “elevates the issue of climate change to the highest echelons of government.” And while Kerry is undoubtedly qualified for the role, the reaction to his appointment to this “climate envoy” role has so far been mixed — due primarily to the fact that Kerry has been in a similar position before, and yet we still have seen no climate action.
More interesting, though, has been the reaction to the reaction. As climate activists and journalists have pointed out the potential flaws in Kerry’s appointment, others have said they’re being too critical. That Kerry is a good man. That he’s passionate. That he’s qualified. That people should be happy with Biden’s choice.
But there is nothing about the present climate situation that suggests this is a time to be happy. And Kerry’s ability to get us out if this dire situation will not rest solely on his goodness or passion or previous experience. It will rest on his ability to do the best job he’s ever done in his life, every single day.
There is nothing about the present climate situation that suggests this is a time to be happy.
To do that, he and the entire Biden administration need to feel the pressure of this moment more than they believe they can bear. They're the ones who accepted the responsibility of solving the climate crisis in the 11th hour. This is literally the greatest responsibility a group of people could ever have.
And it is our responsibility, as citizens and people who want livable futures for our children, to constantly criticize and question those who are tasked with providing them. Criticizing Kerry and his colleagues is not an act of malice against Kerry. It is an act of duty and care.
If it seems unfair to hold anyone to such a high standard — especially someone like Kerry, who has already tried so hard to push for progress on climate issues — that’s because it is. But this is the place Trump and the fossil fuel industry have put us in. It is extremely unjust. It is extremely unfair.
It is also the reality of the climate situation we’re in. We have to care about our future more than we care about defending Kerry's honor. We have a duty to future generations and ourselves to scrutinize his every move.
Kerry, too, has a duty to accept and learn from that criticism. At present he’s known for being a little brittle; he got testy with me once when I asked a legitimate question about diversity in the climate movement. But the science of climate change doesn't have time for him taking things personally.
If aggressive decarbonization doesn’t begin soon, climate scientists see little chance of preventing permanent ecological catastrophe.
We're emerging from a political administration where no matter how loud you yelled, you were never heard. There's reason to believe this is going to change; we have evidence that Biden and Kerry are movable and able to be pushed effectively by the climate movement on this issue.
But Kerry and Biden also have a history of being pushed by the fossil fuel industry. So we can't just sit back and trust them to do a good job, because they are good, solid people.
Biden said during a recent speech that he wants his team to tell him what he needs to know, not what he wants to know. He was talking about his own cabinet, but this principle applies to the public, too. With this new administration, we have an opportunity to reframe criticism as a form of care. We do it not just because we want this administration to succeed, but because we need them to.